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How can the Self be described in Gestalt Therapy

What is Self in Gestalt theory?

"All psychotherapies are psychotherapies of the self."
Mahoney (1991)


This brief article looks at how the self is understood in Gestalt theory. A literary review was conducted on a number of databases resulting in 112 articles under the research strategy combining gestalt and self. The description of the self starts from the contribution of the founders of Gestalt theory, namely: Perls, Hefferline and Goodman. Subsequently the voices of other theorists are integrated and commented upon, to foster the understanding of the various perspectives of the self in Gestalt theory.


The studying and understanding of the self has long drawn the attention of social researchers, writers and philosophers (Giusti, 2002). Many are the notions describing the self within Gestalt and humanistic theory, namely:

  • the self as a process: the authors who support this vision describe the self as an agent in a continuous process. Some of the authors supporting this view are Yalom (1981), Yontef (1995), Perls (1951).
  • the self as multidimensional: this notion of the self explains how each individual’s personality is composed by a multiplicity of selves. This notion is supported by Polster (1973), Rowan (1990).
  • the self as dialogical: this notion is sustained by Richard Hychner and several others and refers to the theory of Martin Buber’s I-Thou concept (McLeod, 1993).

The Self at a glance in Gestalt theory, from the founders to later commentators

Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951, pag.11) define the self as the system of contact at any moment; quite an innovative view when compared with other forms of psychotherapy which understand the self as an entity and not a process as suggested by PHG. Self in Gestalt theory is contact, more precisely contact at the boundary between organism and environment (PHG, 1951, pag.373). The boundary in PHG’s view “is not isolated from the environment, it contacts the environment, it belongs to both environment and organism” (PHG, 1951, pag.373). The early perspective of self in Gestalt theory suggests that: the self was mostly understood as process towards the figure formation and less so on the assimilating and integrating processes - which have lately emerged - which has been quite fundamental in describing and comprehending the process of contact (Clarkson and Mackewen, 1993).

In order to actualize his growth potential the self is supported by three structures, namely Ego, Id and Personality, which can be described as aspects or functions of the self (PHG, 1951, pag. 377- 383).

The Id function is in synthesis the genesis, and corresponds to the sensation state during which our feelings could be out of awareness.

The Ego function is the intentional state, which supports the mobilization towards the contact making in the here and now.

The Personality function is our life script, our life experiences which have contributed to generate our attitudes, behaviours and stereotypes that emerge in the process of contact, often out of awareness.

PHG (1951) go even further and duly describe specifically what the self is in respect to the three partial systems/structures  listed above, namely:   

...”we consider the self as the function of contacting the actual transient present, we ask what its properties and activities are; and we discuss the three chief partial systems, ego, id, personality that in special circumstances seems to be the self”.

While I have no criticism towards the description of the self as a function of contacting the actual transient present, how can a function, which comes alive in the moment of contact, be previously understood in terms of given properties and activities? Shouldn’t these be the result and not the antecedent of the contacting episode? Properties are different in physics and chemistry. In fact, while in physics they are unchangeable, on the contrary in chemistry they determine the way a material behaves in a chemical reaction, in the act of contacting with other elements. Are PHG assuming that the structure of our self is a mix of the two? Are they claiming a semi-rigid interconnected structure between ego, id and personality which is continuously changing in the contact making process at the boundary with the environment, whose existence is the contact and nothing else prior to this?

The three dimensions constituting the self highlighted by PHG, namely Personality, Id and Ego, appear to me more an unfinished way to contra pose the Freudian model, which are at risk of determining again “fixed” figures not representative of the real essence of the self, which I am more at ease to understand for its phenomenological manifestation in the here and how of the relationship. The view of the self as a process described by PHG, was later integrated by Erving and Miriam Polster in 1973 through their masterpiece work titled: Gestalt Therapy Integrated. The Polsters abandon the idea of self as contact, claiming a similitude between the notion of self and ego. For Polster and Polster, contact implies a sense of oneself and therefore there is no holism between organism and environment (McLeod 1993). While I understand this notion of the self, as it clearly explains me that a differentiation is necessary in order to understand that the self is not necessarily what manifests at the boundary of contact between organism and environment, but self is ego and, therefore, the intentional state of the organism which anticipates contact, I am not quite sure how this ego dimension can exist outside a contact-making episode, and if self is ego, then it should necessarily be id and/or personality or a diverse mix of the three functions. In fact, ego in my understanding, cannot manifest itself outside sensations; and, last but not least, the quality of the feelings the ego structure is carrying is strongly intertwined with the personality dimension, while the ego function is also a voice whose singing is influenced by the music written by the personality function. I believe this view does not take into clear account the environment dimension and is somehow at risk of moving back to an intra psychic vision of the self.

A later notion suggested by Hycner and others (1989), based on the I-Thou theory of Martin Buber, portrays the self as a dialogical continuum. Hychner’s idea of self as dialogical contact is clearly stated in his book Between Person and Person, where he states:

For the most of my career as a psychotherapist...I realized that the essential component of a therapeutic approach was the role of dialogue in human life...the inexhaustible richness of therapeutic encounter. Furthermore, I found no theory which adequately addressed in an integrated manner, what was going on “within” (the intrapsychic), “between” (the interpersonal), and “beyond” (the transpersonal), the therapist and the client. (Hychner,1998, pag.25-26):

Writing appears to be somehow contradictory to Gestalt theory. Understanding and describing the self might in fact only be possible, in the context of a phenomenal moment (Spagnuolo Lobb, 2001). Theorising about the self in Gestalt appears, therefore, paradoxical to the theory of Gestalt, and I am aware of it while attempting to describe what the self is in Gestalt. In fact, from the paradoxical theory of change, if change is “becoming what one is” (and I believe that the concept of being is a largely debatable dimension), and the being is a relational moment in time between two subjectivities (Buber 1991), who are  constituting  agents in a given environment, then the self can only by described and understood through the specific lenses/notion which the observer is adopting in that particular moment in time, the moment being a continuously changing relational co-construction. Therefore, I believe that conceptualising the self out of the context within which it manifests itself appears to be paradoxical.

Changing the frame of reference might open up to new understandings (Festinger, 1957). And for the purpose of this article I believe it is important to integrate changeability in the definition of what the selfing is or might be in the continuum of our presence. While understanding the importance of categories in service of human comprehension of the world we are and we live in (Focault, 2005), I believe as Spagnuolo Lobb states (2001) that: “the theory of self in Gestalt therapy is epistemologically based in the paradox of theorizing the untheorizable, of grasping experience in its very transitoriness”. It appears, from Spagnuolo Lobb, as if a notion of self is paradoxical in the context of Gestalt theory.

I find myself supporting her thought. In fact, what I am criticising is our overlooking of the facts constituting the categorisation and how the categories describing the self are defined and understood; as soon as they become fixed ideas versus an emergent process, I believe we might be at risk of having lost our very understanding of how the self manifests itself and also at danger of disconnecting from the possibility of creating an I-Thou togetherness which encompasses and transcend the self dimension. I am quite conscious that, from a relational standpoint, the very mistake is the position of the observer. Asking what the self is in Gestalt, differs from asking how does the self might manifest itself, only and if only the observer perceives the act of being as a fixed status or even a movement within fixed characteristics, and in no other ways.


The self might be observed as a function, as an emergent process, as a set of complex characteristics, as a core. Many can be the words and the categories, still is our being in the relation, the contact we produce and make with our clients between and beyond, which is paramount to enable the self to adjust to the variability in life, without being at risk of over structuring or over de-structuring, but enacting change as a needed status in motion. I believe the question "what is self?" responds to another and more profound question, namely: how much control do we have over our lives? A question which ultimately seeks to understand "what is after life?".


Buber, M. (1991) L’Io e il Tu. Bonomi Milano

Clarkson, P. Mackewen,J. (1993) Fritz Perls. Sage Publications, London.

Clarkson, P. (2003) The Therapeutic Relationship. Whurr Publishers. London and Philadelphia

Festinger, L. (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston. Illinois. Row Peterson.

Focault, M. (2005) L’archeologia del sapere: Una metodologia per la storia della cultura. Hoeply. Milano

Giusti, E. (2002) Essere in Divenendo. Sovera, Roma

Hychner, R. (1988) Between Person and Person: Toward a Dialogical Psychoterapy. The Gestalt Journal. NY.

Yalom I.D (1981) Existential Psychotherapy, New York Basic Books

Yontef G.M (1995) Gestalt Therapy, in A.s. Gurman and S.B Messer (Eds), Essential psychotherapies: Theory and practice, New York, Guilford Press.

Yontef, G. M.  (1997) Relationship and sense of self in Gestalt therapy training. Gestalt Journal. Vol 20, pp. 17-48

McLeod L. (1993) The Self in Gestalt Therapy Theory. The British Gestalt Journal, n. 3 (pg.25-40)

Perls, F.; Hefferline, R.F.; Goodman, P. (1951) Gestalt Therapy, Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Souvenir Press. London

Perls, F.S. (2010) “The Self”: Finding self through Gestalt Therapy. International Gestalt Journal. Cooper Union Forum-Lecture series. Vol. 33, pp 27-51.

Phlippson, P. (2002) Gestalt Therapy - A philosophy of the Self. Self & Society. Vol. 29, n.5 pp. 21-24

Phlippson, P. (2007) Obituary: Petruska Clarkson. British Gestalt Journal, Vol.16, n. 1.

Phlippson, P. (2008). Three Boundaries of Self Formation. The International Gestalt Journal. Vol.31, n.1. pp.17-37

Polster Erving and Polster Miriam (1973) Gestalt Therapy Integrated: Contours of Theory and Practice. Vintage. New York.

Rowan J., Cooper M., (1999) The Plural Self, London, Sage Publications.

Spagnuolo Lobb, M. (2008). From the epistemology of self to clinical specificity in Gestalt psychotherapy. International Gestalt Journal. Vol 31. n.1 , pp. 51-73

Spagnuolo Lobb M.  (2001). The theory of self in Gestalt Therapy: A restatement of some aspects. Gestalt Review Vol. 5, pp. 276-288

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